03 September 2004
You have to admire the sheer cheek of the Bush image-makers. President Bush may have been a divisive, confrontational president for the past four years, but the Republican convention has confirmed that for the next eight weeks he is to be promoted as a candidate of inclusion and reconciliation. As a marketing strategy, it is more daring than any raid ever undertaken by the Pentagon's special forces.
This pitch has a couple of obvious problems. Last time round it was easier to sell George Bush as compassionate, as there was no record against which to check the sales language. This time there is the awkward problem of finding any basis in his conduct in office upon which to build a case that he cares about social inclusion.
The other problem with presenting the Bush administration as a force for reconciliation is the continuing presence of Dick Cheney. The Vice President is so little into the politics of forgiveness and understanding that as a congressman he was one of only a handful who voted against calling for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison. His speech to the Republican convention was classic confrontational politics, in which John Kerry came in for a typical Cheney assault and battery for being soft on the security of America. Objective observers might find this line of attack particularly rich, as John Kerry famously did serve in Vietnam while Dick Cheney solicited five successive student deferments to avoid the draft, but the Vice President is so armoured by ideological certitude that no moment of self-doubt can penetrate it.
There are some who detect in the Bush administration a learning curve on international relations. Iraq has certainly exposed the limits of unilateralism and the penalty for failure to build international consensus. It is much less clear that the White House has modified its foreign policy in response to that painful lesson.
Revealingly, the most pointed attack by Dick Cheney on Kerry's position was to criticise his call for America to rebuild ties with its allies, "as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics". One of the loudest bouts of booing that Cheney elicited from Republican delegates was when he caricatured Kerry for wanting to give more weight to the UN. No sign there that a Bush-Cheney team would be any more multilateralist second time round. Indeed, the only guaranteed change in a second Bush administration is that Colin Powell, its only convinced multilateralist, will have given up the unequal struggle to keep the White House in touch with international reality and left the administration.
However tough it may be to present George Bush as a healer and carer, it has to be a more attractive electoral message than the truth that he has divided Americans and isolated America. There must be a risk that it might just work. While praying for a Kerry victory, the rest of the globe needs to be prepared for the survival of Bush.
No doubt in-trays in Downing Street are full of plans for the eventuality of a Bush re-election. Tony Blair appears to be the only member of his own government who still would like to see it happen. At one level his preference is understandable. His prime motivation in cajoling and misleading Britain into Iraq was to convince George Bush that his closest ally and friend was Tony Blair. As this was a calculation based on the assumption that Bush would be there for a decade, it must be galling for Tony Blair now to contemplate the loss of a personal relationship with the White House bought at such enormous cost in political controversy in Britain.
There would, though, be no excuse for Tony Blair having failed to apply the lesson from the comprehensive failure of the strategy of seeking private influence over Bush in return for fulsome support. National self-respect demands that next time round the Prime Minister should be more willing to voice concern where the policy of Bush departs from the interests of Britain.
There will be no shortage of tests for Blair's willingness to take on Bush in a second term. The nadir of Downing Street's subordination to the White House came when Tony Blair appeared in the Rose Garden to persuade a sceptical world that, in endorsing Ariel Sharon's commitment to keep chunks of the West Bank, President Bush had stayed true to the road-map to Middle East peace. Not even the most elastic interpretation of the road-map can stretch to reconciling it with the latest private approval by the White House for new house-building by Israel within specified areas of the West Bank. This is in flat contradiction of the road-map, which requires an end to settlement construction as a first step, and withdrawal from all settlements as a necessary ingredient in a negotiated package.
Publication of the road-map was the celebrated concession which Tony Blair won from George Bush in return for support in Iraq. He, even more than any of the other partners to the road-map in Europe and the UN, should feel compelled to protest when George Bush unilaterally abandons it.
Then there is global warming, which Tony Blair's chief scientific advisor, before he was obliged to retract, warned is a bigger threat than terrorism, and a cause of greater loss of life through famine and flood. One of the problems of getting any president to sign up to Kyoto is that its targets are defined by cuts in the 1990 baseline of emissions. The US has allowed its fossil fuel extravagance to so run away in the intervening years that simply getting back to 1990 would require painful cuts. Another four years of an administration in Washington hand in glove with the oil industry in Texas will make the levels of 1990 look even more unattainable. What is the point of the private access which Britain is supposed to get in return for its loyalty, if Tony Blair cannot persuade George Bush to accept that there is even a problem over global warming?
It is often observed that Tony Blair's dilemma will be sharpened in the latter half of next year when Britain takes over as President of the EU. This will certainly test to destruction whether he can make a reality of his often-proclaimed role for Britain as a bridge between America and Europe.
But there will be an earlier challenge to his capacity to forge a common agenda between a second-term Bush and the rest of the international community. From January next year it is Britain's turn to sit in the chair of the G8, which brings together the largest industrialised economies. The first major event for the Prime Minister after a spring election will be welcoming the major international players to a summit in Britain. I suspect that the prospect of that starring role on the international stage next year was one of the reasons that made it unlikely that Tony Blair would stand down this year.
The litmus question will be whether Tony Blair uses his leverage as President of the G8 to persuade George Bush into joining an international consensus, or to manoeuvre the other major players behind the US. It is a measure of the trauma of the past four years that I really would rather not find out what the answer would be. I will keep praying that we are saved from the knowledge by the US electorate showing the wit to see through the repackaging of George Bush as a consensual candidate.